Foreign Policy Gets Little Attention but Still Looms Over the Election

Protesters burn a U.S. flag during a demonstration over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

(CN) — During the final debate between presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump, moderator Kristen Welker turned the debate to the question of foreign policy asking each candidate about foreign interference in America’s elections. 

It was rather fitting that the first question about foreign policy, arguably the arena of the federal government over which the president has the most influence, was essentially a question about the domestic affairs of the country. 

The Trump-Biden contest is unprecedented in many ways, given its occurrence amid a pandemic that has constrained each candidate from running traditional campaigns, but relative to past contests for the White House, it stands out in how little foreign policy has been substantively discussed. 

“With public health, economic, racial justice and climate crises bearing down on the United States, foreign policy questions like the future of America’s longest-ever war in Afghanistan and Washington’s approach to curbing Iran’s nuclear program, have been relegated to the back burner,” said Rebecca Lisner, co-author of “An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First-Century Order.”

It’s not solely Afghanistan and Iran, vestiges of America’s War on Terror, which has receded into the background, according to foreign policy experts. 

“In some of the recent elections, foreign policy was so central to the debates because ongoing wars were so central at the time,” said Jeremy Pressman, a foreign policy expert at the University of Connecticut. 

Since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, American foreign policy was dominated by questions surrounding the continuation of the Iraq War, how troops were faring in Afghanistan and other questions related to the War on Terror, Barack Obama’s red line on Syria, conditions in Libya and how to manage Iran’s proxy war with Saudia Arabia. 

These questions are simply no longer as salient to most Americans. 

“Whatever you say about Trump’s foreign policy record, he didn’t initiate any new conflicts,” Pressman said. 

That and many critics of the Trump administration saw his own flirtation with autocracy and authoritarian instincts as a more existential threat to American institutions than any foreign actor. 

As Michael Hahn of the NYU School of Law put it:

“U.S. democracy promotion efforts abroad seem a bit absurd at a time when voting rights are under assault right here at home.”

Pressman agreed, saying much of the current debate is inward-looking as many on both sides of the political spectrum feel those on the other side are an imminent and existential threat to the nation and their values. 

“There’s just not as much oxygen to look beyond our borders,” Pressman said. 

It’s not to say foreign policy and the affairs of the world suddenly lack consequence in the domestic sphere. 

After all, Trump became the third president to be impeached, but the first one to be impeached over a foreign policy matter. However, it’s telling that issue mostly played out in the domestic sphere, with prominent Trump supporters dismissing charges that the president inappropriately leaned on a foreign leader in exchange for personal political gain because most Americans wouldn’t be able to identify Ukraine on a map. 

But Trump’s foreign policy, while at times incoherent, was consequential. 

Despite the Trump administration’s ratification of the Abraham Accords, where Arab countries Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates agreed to normalize relations with Israel, the nation’s focus has swerved from the Middle East to a rising China.  

In this April 12, 2018, file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks after reviewing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy fleet in the South China Sea. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)

“Unlike most of the post-Cold War period, the United States is no longer the world’s uncontested superpower and China’s rise means that Washington and Beijing will be competing to write the rules of the road for 21st-century international politics,” Lissner said.

Trump’s foreign policy focused heavily on China, while downplaying war in the Middle East, with his administration engaging in a trade war, striking a Phase 1 deal and then conditions deteriorating after Trump blamed the Asian country for not doing more to contain the coronavirus at the outset of the outbreak in Wuhan.  

But with all that focus, Trump hasn’t talked about China much on the trail. 

During the debate, when given the chance to tout his trade deal or talk about China as a foreign threat against which America could unite, he chose instead to talk about Hunter Biden and Chinese payments to American farmers, discussing both issues with a tangential relationship to facts.  

Biden on the other hand has talked about holding China more accountable but discusses the need to engage America’s traditional allies in NATO and elsewhere to check an ambitious China. 

“Biden has been quite clear that he intends to reclaim the United States’ traditional role as a global leader, recommitting to alliances,” Lisner said. 

Both Pressman and Lissner said Trump is prone to a more confrontational style than Biden, who will use diplomacy and persuasion rather than saber-rattling. 

This contrast may be particularly apparent as it applies to Iran. 

Trump campaigned in 2016 on tearing up the Iran Nuclear Deal, a signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration that sought to curtail Iran’s program to build nuclear weapons. 

Trump was highly critical of Obama’s diplomatic approach to Iran, saying it emboldened a state sponsor of terrorism and helped enemies of the United States on the ground in the Middle East. 

Since, he has been bellicose toward Iran, going so far as to launch a successful drone strike against Iran General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 as the two nations appeared to inch toward a possible confrontation. 

“Trump has only been about confrontation with Iran,” Pressman said. “With Biden, the diplomatic card may be back on the table.”

Critics of Trump’s approach point out that Iran is further along on its nuclear program than when Trump took office, while the country has grown more isolated and confrontational. 

Obama and Biden’s philosophy was one of bringing Iran into the international fold, hoping that inclusion and economic prosperity would lead to a liberalization among the population and less of an inclination toward animosity towards the United States and the West in general. 

Pressman also notes Trump seems more inclined to cooperate with dictators. 

“Clearly he has expressed sympathy with people who have the character profile of being a strong man who tells people what to do while maintaining firm control of the country,” Pressman said. 

This has implications for Europe and Turkey. 

In the past few months, tensions between Turkey and Greece have escalated as the two countries continue disputes over energy reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. The fracas impacts NATO, with Germany’s internal politics, roiled as of late over whether to sell submarines to Turkey. 

“The biggest difference between Biden and Trump when it comes to Turkey will be the embrace of NATO,” Pressman said, adding Biden believes in growing that relationship while Trump has continued to complain that NATO countries are over-reliant on military spending by the United States and need to start paying their fair share. 

Other conflicts have emerged as well. 

Azerbaijan and Armenia continue a border dispute that has erupted into armed engagements, failed ceasefires and a generalized threat to destabilize the Caucasus. 

Human rights violations in China, with concentration camps in Xinjiang and suppression of dissent in Hong Kong, continue apace regardless of America’s attention or lack thereof. 

North Korea, despite half-hearted attempts from Trump, has continued to amass a nuclear arsenal. 

Regardless of whether Americans are attuned to pressing international issues, they remain, and whoever wins the White House on Tuesday will face challenges in grappling with them. 

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